DIY Engineering in a Custom Mobile Rig: In The Studio (sort of) with ATTENTION SYSTEM
What was your pre-production like on this project?
This record was very different for us; we’re all technophiles, so we decided to pull out of the big studio zeitgeist and do some mobile DIY audio engineering in weird places.
So the pre- was probably the most difficult part to intellectualize. We did the entirety of the record in Pro Tools, so all the standard pre-pro stuff had to be done on the computer (the track planning, plug-ins, session building and all that), and we’d map out a method for recording each instrument in odd ways.
Why use a mobile studio?
Well, we wanted to do some weird stuff that would have been insanely expensive or down right impossible in a traditional studio environment, so we created a mobile rig and named it after a lyric in one of our tunes: Get It Get It Laboratories. If you cannot buy it, you build it!
What kind of sound were you looking for and how did you achieve it?
From a guitarist’s perspective, the biggest thing we were looking for was more of a live quality to the guitars. Our first record was very antiseptic; we used isolation booths heavily. I don’t think any of us actually played in the same room with our amps, and thus lost a degree of control in the fingers.
The idea with this record was to get right in the middle of a ton of our live gear, put microphones up and see what came out.
Sometimes you get feedback-filled noisy, unusable material; sometimes you get a really great, controlled track. From there, we did a simple set of blends and deletions on the tracks and mixed them down for stems.
How does it compare to your last release in terms of style and the creative process?
This is totally different. With the first record, we had parts and a plan. We drove to the studio. We drove the instruments. The product was delivered. This time around, we were able not only to play around with aural reality a little, but we had the freedom to actually fiddle with specific parts on the fly. One example: Jason had a great idea for a drum fill in one of our tunes, “Incoming,” that involved a set of sixes. It wasn’t in the tune originally, but the freedom of having a DIY setup allowed us to change the drums, guitars and synth programming on the fly within a couple of hours. Everyone loved the idea, so into the final mix it goes. That would not have been possible with a by-the-hour engineer at the helm – you get bloated so quickly that it becomes economically prohibitive.
Did you use any special gear or recording techniques on this one?
We built these massive four-amp systems and tried out a whole bunch of microphones in weird places to get the basic guitar sounds. Not your standard stuff at all. I think at one point we had an Orange 30-watt combo feeding a 12″ and a 15″ cab, two Vox AC30s running in stereo, and an Orange quarter stack…all pumping one guitar. Each amp had a couple microphones (front and back), and we’d kind of scatter more mics around the room. So, you record a take and have a listen and see what you picked up. It was a bit of a treasure hunt. If you strike gold, you write down the configuration and cut all the fat.
The bass guitar was done in a pretty standard way: a couple microphones and a DI. We’d double a lot of those tracks and send them through a SansAMP plug-in to get some grit.
The drums were strange. We have a set of very well-recorded samples of the drum kit we all liked in the filestore, so we decided to go the MIDI route. We used a Franken-kit of MIDI pads. Jason played the parts, and we’d go back in and do micro-edits to get some of the weird stuff right, and map the samples of his acoustic kit right to the MIDI track. Sometimes you get a great, transparent track. Others, we’d mix between programmed electro drums and the acoustic stuff. All in all, we had a great degree of freedom.
What was your philosophy on live, full-band takes versus individual tracking?
We did no full-band tracks by express, pre-thought out choice. Our music is designed to sound cut-up, fiddled with, squished, mashed, tortured. It is totally impossible to get some of the takes we ended up keeping in a live setting. That’s the fun of it! You get into this playground of “what-ifs,” and there are a whole lot of rabbit holes to explore. The process is time-intensive for sure, but the Albini method simply wouldn’t work for us.
What did you try to accomplish in the studio that you’re not able to do live?
We really wanted to emphasize the stereo field in this recording. Our last record was very much a left-right-center affair (which has a whole lot of pros, don’t get me wrong). When we’re playing clubs with mono PA systems night after night, we wanted to tickle the ears a little differently. Of course, we still strip the material down slightly, recalibrate the synth tracks and subtly change the way we run things for live shows.
What were the toughest challenges you faced?
I think anyone that makes a DIY record will tell you the same thing: we wasted too much damn time. Decisions are tough to come by when you’re in that situation – no one is the boss. We recorded the last record in three days; this one took eight months.
How did you handle final mixing and mastering?
We bounced tracks for each individual’s parts down into stereo stems (with a little leeway; we didn’t want to be quite so militaristic as we were with the last record) and delivered them to a wonderful duo called the Pull Out Kings: Zach Solem and Greg Steward. From there, the PKs would mix and produce as they saw fit and send the tracks back. We’d make corrections and suggestions on these big matrices that I built, and send those back. As soon as the production was spot on, the PKs would mix the songs and we’d get an un-mastered final. All the stereo bounces have gone into a big session for mastering, and there we are.
The interesting thing was that nearly nothing was done face-to-face. We wanted to hear what the Pull Out Kings thought was important and what wasn’t. We wanted them to take this giant sea of material and distill it into a nice, consumable glass of water for us. They nailed it.
What are your release plans?
We’ll release the record in the summer with both physical and digital distribution. We’ve been talking about a couple of ideas involving limited runs with some bonus stuff: stay tuned!
Band Name: Attention System
Album Name: TBD
Mobile Studio: Get It Get It Laboratories
Record Label: Self-released
Release Date: Summer 2013
Produced and Mastered by: the Pull Out Kings
Engineered by: Attention System
-Various Radio Shack microphones
-Avid Audio Interfaces (Digi002, various MBoxes)
For more visit www.attentionsystem.com.
Have a unique studio story to share? Email [email protected].
photos by Ken Falcon